Chapter 18:

Isul, Interrupted

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Isul**

I ran and ran and ran until my synthetic muscles began to fail. I ran without purpose, without direction, without hope. My positronic brain was almost on overload, and every time the red wall threatened to drop down I ran further. If I could outrun it, perhaps I could survive it.

Or perhaps I could at least die on my own terms. Without harming Tristan or causing him further shame.

I stumbled down a dark alleyway in the Warrens, suddenly aware of the odor of fermenting urine and liquor. I had long ago ripped out my antlers and all their tracking equipment. Tristan could not find me. I could not, would not, put him in that kind of danger again.

Everything began to snap into place now as fragments of memories reintegrated into my memory core. His avoidance of touch, his willingness to take the consort, his attempt to be nice without being romantic. All because he was afraid of the thing inside my head that had tried to murder him.

I could feel it inside me now, a pulsing digital tumor. Even getting close to it mentally caused my vision to grow hazy, so I walled it off as best I could. I wandered down a dark alleyway, and slumped behind a stinking rubbish bin. After betraying my primary programming so spectacularly, it was where I belonged.

I sat there for hours, or perhaps days. Time lost all meaning until I heard the crunch of boots down the alleyway. I willed it not to be Tristan. I wanted him to let me die. I screwed my eyes tightly shut and dropped my aching head into my hands.

“You look like shit, kid,” Winnie said. “Smell like shit too.”

I let out a sigh as I opened my eyes. “I saw everything, Winnie.”

“I know, kid,” she said as she dropped to the ground beside me and awkwardly patted my arm with her own metal appendage.

I turned my ocular receptors toward her. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“Too dangerous. Thought it would reactivate the virus if you knew, or if Tristan got too physical with you.”

I moaned. “Shut me down, Winnie. For good this time.”

She shook her head. “No can do, Isul. You’re a self-perpetuating system now. Self-actualization’s a bitch when you can’t just check out of life when things get tough, isn’t it?”

My fist slammed into the side of the rubbish bin, which sent its putrid contents sailing across the alley. “I. Can’t. Hurt. Him.”

“And you won’t, if you come with me, get cleaned up, and let me help you work through this,” Winnie coaxed.

I gave a dark laugh. “Not everything is a problem you can fix, Winnie. I can’t look him in the eye again after that.”

Winnie tapped her foot in obvious annoyance. “Tristan obviously doesn’t feel that way, or else he wouldn’t have had me try fixing you in the first place.”

I felt angry, and sad, and so, so tired. How could he play so callously with his life?

“Don’t make me hit your kill switch and drag your sorry self back to my lab before you wake up,” Winnie said.

I looked up at her as I rose from the ground, “What’s the point? What good am I to anyone like this?”

“Is that what you told Tristan after he lost his memories?” Her words were cutting. “Did you tell him to just give up and die? Or were you there holding his hand every step of his recovery?”

I looked away as shame burned beneath my skin. “But he can’t help me,” I whispered.

Winnie placed flesh and metal hands on my face and locked eyes with me. “He may not know how, but lucky for you you’ve got the greatest genius in the empire who has barely slept for weeks working on something to try and help you. That is if you can stop being a sad sack long enough to let her.”

*  *  *

Winnie’s lab was messier than usual, stray bits sprayed across every available surface, and her computer mainframe doing thousands of calculations a second. I stripped off the robes that smelled like piss and death and threw them straight into the reclamation unit while one of her fabrication stations made me a set of clothes. They were black, and the shirt clung to my new, more muscular torso.

I caught my reflection in a piece of glass. “I think these clothes are too small, Winnie.”

Her chair on the hydraulic arm swung around, and she couldn’t resist a small leer. “Tristan won’t think so.”

I shook my head and sat back down on the examination table. Winnie opened my access hatch and plugged me into a workstation not connected the the Imperial DataNet.

“How did you stop it the first time?” I asked quietly as she worked.

“I didn’t stop it. Only contained it,” she replied. “I didn’t exactly have a lot of time to do calculations or run test programs after you ripped off my arm.”

I felt my eyes grow wide as I noticed for the first time that her mechanical arm was a different model. The bitterness and shame welled up inside again. “Winnie, I’m so, so sorry. It was-”

She cut me off with a sparking motion that cut off my vocal circuit. “It was out of your control, Isul. Beating yourself silly over it does us no good now. If I turn your voice box back on, promise I won’t have to endure more apologies? You’ve made me go through more emotional ups and downs in one day than I have over the last three years.”

I nodded silently, and Winnie used her omnitool to reactivate my vocal circuit. “Just what is this thing you’ve been working on for the last few weeks, anyway?” I asked.

With a flick of her eyes, Winnie sent the projection from her eyeglass to the main projector. A pair of jet-black antlers appeared. “After I lost two weeks of your memories sacrificing them to the virus, I realized I couldn’t trust anything inside the system,” she said as she tapped my forehead, “So I was forced to build an attachment.”

I looked curiously over at the antlers. “What do they do?”

Winnie’s hand guided me over a schematic of the new antlers. “I had to jettison all your tracking and scanning equipment, sadly. But these will block outside signals from getting to you - no remote input, so you’ll have to plug in every time you want to access a computer terminal.”

“How is that supposed to help what’s already embedded inside me?”

“That’s just the precautionary part. The antlers also have an emotional suppression subroutine built in that will send you into low power when you feel too strong of emotions - either for good or ill - toward Tristan,” she said, as though that were the best thing in the galaxy.

“So I’m saved by becoming an emotional cripple?” I asked.

Her eyes narrowed. “Would you rather those emotions get a hold of you and you wake to the realization that you’ve strangled him?”

“Touche.”

Winnie huffed. “At least this way, with the shutdown, it will give your true memories time to reassert themselves and reconstruct the barrier around the virus.”

My eyes blurred as I gazed at the ceiling of the warehouse. “You really can’t get it out, can you? That horrible thing in my brain.”

Winnie gently touched my arm. “Cancer wasn’t cured by the Theocracy in a few weeks, Isul. You have to have patience.”

I laughed, a short, harsh sound. “You sound like me when I’m trying to talk Tristan out of something.”

Winnie synced my internal clock, and I gasped as I realized what day it was. “Why didn’t you tell me today was the coronation day? There was so much I still had to do,” I groaned.

“It doesn’t matter now, does it? What’s important is getting you fixed so you can go back there and fulfill your function to help the Princeling,” Winnie.

I pursed my lips. “Can I at least watch it?”

Winnie huffed, and a holoscreen appeared above the table, showcasing the procession arriving at the palace. Tristan looked tense from the back of the hovercar, but he was putting on a good show for the people at least.

What puzzled me was who was sitting beside him. “What is Princess Lashell doing there?”

Winnie looked puzzled. “What do you mean? All the NewsNet has been abuzz since the rumor leaked last night that she was going to be the new Empress.”

My eyes widened, “Winnie, Chet Lavigne was going to be the new Prince Consort. It was all set up, just not announced.”

“You’re joking, right? I saw Tristan escort the Princess off her ship along with the Oracle this morning.” The hydraulic arm pulled her chair back as she engaged her eyeglass to do a search for Chet. “My information says Chet is bedridden, and couldn’t make the ceremony today. Sent a lovely ice sculpture with his regrets,” she said.

I shook my head vigorously. “No, it was approved by the Oracle and everything.”

Winnie squinted at me through the eyeglass. “Are you certain?”

I nodded my head again began manipulating the live feed of the ceremony. I zoomed in on Tristan’s face. Everything looked normal. Haircut was a bit shorter, but that wasn’t unexpected.

But the eyes, something behind the eyes didn’t look quite right.

And then I saw his lips. Where there should have been the faintest healing of a scar from where I had injured him, I instead saw lips that were unblemished. Perfect.

“Winnie, I don’t think that’s Tristan,” I said, my voice beginning to shake.

She began chewing her bottom lip and running facial recognition software. “Everything checks out. Same facial structure.”

The more I looked at it, the more certain I became, however. “That man is a clone.”

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